PARIS – State Public Safety Commissioner Anne Jordan told members of the Oxford County community Tuesday night that they must come together to discourage underage drinking.

“We are putting out a call to action,” said Jordan, who addressed about 50 participants, including law enforcement, students, parents, social workers and others at the town hall.

“It is a statewide problem, and if you don’t believe it, you have your head in the sand,” said Jordan, who as a prosecutor in the mid-1980s witnessed the effects of underage drinking and driving and continues to see the problem. As part of a statewide action committee, she and others are trying to put the brakes on liquor establishments selling alcohol to minors.

The meeting was one of hundreds in communities nationwide to discuss the issue of underage drinking and to answer the surgeon general’s “Call to Action” to take steps as a community to stop it.

Surveys conducted in the Oxford Hills School District as part of the 2000 and 2006 Maine Youth Drug and Alcohol surveys show that 75 percent of Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School students have tried alcohol by the time they are seniors and 17 percent of sixth grade students have tried it.

National statistics show that approximately 29 percent of youth ages 12 to 20 have used alcohol illegally by the time they have reached eighth grade and 41 percent have had at least one drink and almost 20 percent report being drunk.

Maine District Court Judge John McElwee, who said he was thrown in jail 23 years ago for drunken driving and has been sober ever since, said he is convinced that alcohol use, both by youth and adults, is the predominant cause of many of the cases he hears.

“I’m the judge of the alcohol court, and that’s what I do far and away,” he said.

McElwee said, in his opinion, a large part of the problem stems from the fact that alcohol is acceptable in society.

“Most start (drinking) when they’re young and don’t do something about it,” he said.

Kathryn Gardner, substance abuse prevention coordinator for Healthy Oxford Hills, which sponsored the event along with Community Concepts, SAD 17, area legislators and community volunteers, said there are goals to help decrease the underage drinking statistics.

They include working closely with local retailers to make sure they are certified and trained to not sell to underage people and expanding the Oxford County Substance Abuse Task Force.

Joan Churchill of Community Concepts said the good news is that a lot fewer young people are drinking, and they believe it is because of stepped up education. Maine has done extensive work in preventative education in these areas, and it seems to be paying off, she said.

However, she warned, new survey results, which are expected out this summer, she believes will show an increase in the illegal use of prescription drugs.

Several students talked about their work to decrease the statistics. Hilary White of the Youth Empowerment Policy Project gave a presentation on the effects of retail advertising, saying it is geared toward young people. The group is trying to work with local retailers to curtail such advertising.

“It’s sobering and it’s sad, but if we can all pull together and change these attitudes Maine will be a better place,” Jordan said.

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